Thursday, April 07, 2011

Confusions with Charley

It would be difficult to cook up a literary exposé that is less earth-shattering than Bill Steigerwald’s accusation in the April issue of Reason that Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck’s 1962 account of a motoring trip around America, was “not only heavily fictionalized; it was something of a fraud.” Steigerwald accuses Steinbeck of distorting his itinerary, inventing encounters, and lying about “roughing it,” sleeping arrangements, traveling alone with his poodle Charley, the places he stopped to visit. The book is stuffed with “creative fictions,” Steigerwald concludes. “Maybe Travels With Charley should be shelved with Steinbeck’s novels instead of in the nonfiction section.”

Where the book is shelved does not change what the book is, though. Not that Steigerwald is alone in kicking around a confused idea of fiction. The authorities contacted by the New York Times to comment on the story do little better. “Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out,” says Susan Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar at San Jose State University. “That doesn’t make the book a lie.” Travels With Charley is not not true, then—is that what you’re saying? It can’t be fiction. It’s not not true.

“Steinbeck was a fiction writer,” his biographer Jay Parini allows, “and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. . . . But I still feel there’s an authenticity there.” Authenticity—isn’t that what something is supposed to have when it’s not exactly true, but you want to protect it from being called false? The throwback jerseys that the pros wear to honor their sport’s past are described as “authentic,” which is another way of saying they might make the players look as if they belong to yesteryear, if you squint really hard and use your imagination.

Bill Barich is the only one quoted in the Times with anything intelligent to say about the whole mess. Although his opinions about America were “darker” than he admitted in the book, and though his writing was “colored by the fact that he was so ill,” Steinbeck remained perceptive in Travels With Charley, Barich says. “I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country,” he adds. “His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that.”

Barich’s comment suggests that Travels With Charley is a specific kind of book in which the emphasis is upon the pronouncements that the author delivers, not the events that he narrates. At issue in such a book is whether the author’s views, observations, and insights are counterfeit or genuine, not whether the events actually happened. This is a kind of book with a long and distinguished pedigree. The genre includes many travel narratives, starting perhaps with Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and gathering in Twain’s Roughing It (an obvious precursor to Steinbeck’s book) before reaching perfection in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and V. S. Naipaul’s trilogy on India. But the genre also includes hard-to-classify books like Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, Thoreau’s Walden, Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” collections, Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, and A. J. Liebling’s Honest Rainmaker. It is a genre at which Americans have particularly excelled.

Nock’s description of his Memoirs traces the distinctive lines of the genre: “a purely literary and philosophical autobiography with only enough collateral odds and ends thrown in to hold the narrative together.” Or perhaps even better: plenty of philosophy (views, observations, and insights) with only enough narrative to hold the book together. The narrative is a fiction, a contrivance, a ruse to give the book a coherence that, given its disjointed contents, it would otherwise lack. That is its only fictional quality. It asks to be judged, as Barich judges Travels With Charley, on the value of its wisdom.

Yet Barich also tells the Times he is “fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book.” Did he make up the “perceptions” that Barich finds to be “right on the money”? Is that even possible?

The concept of fiction has been betrayed by its choice of partners. On one hand it is identified with fraud and lies; on the other, it is counterpoised with nonfiction (a concept that, if possible, is even more stupefying). But a book can contain “creative fictions” without being fiction, and can be fiction without being a lie. American literary thought would benefit from abandoning classification by either/or, and beginning to examine the different and distinctive ways that fiction operates in different and distinctive kinds of book—even books as silly and forgettable as Travels With Charley.